23 July 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front

I wrote this paper my very last semester at Covenant College. It was for Dr. Morton's Twentieth Century World History class, and it was supposed to talk about the theme of nationalism in Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." He had probably read about a dozen of these papers, but I was actually kind of proud of how mine turned out.


Nationalism and the Generation Gap
“At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim.”[1] This quote from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front sums up the problem of the disconnect between the ideological nationalism pushed by the older generation and the practical nationalism being carried out by the younger generation seen throughout the rest of the book. This is a complex story of recognizing a difference between the older generation’s idealism and what war really is; of love of country despite the realization that you alone know the horrors of all that entails; and of hatred of war yet love of camaraderie.
All Quiet on the Western Front is told in first person narrative from the perspective of Paul Bäumer, a young man of twenty, and his friends and schoolmates around the same age, caught up in a war planned out for them by their fathers. All they know is that they love their country and their fellow man, but they hate the war that decides whom they are to love and whom they are to kill. The first instance of tension between the generations is when Bäumer is thinking back on his old schoolteacher Kantorek. “The teachers,” he says, “always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour.” There is a feeling of shared disconnect among his schoolfellows who signed up under the pressure of the man they trusted and looked up to. “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty of culture, of progress – to the future…The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief.”[2] There is some amount of bitterness directed at Kantorek for pushing Joseph Behm, the only one among his schoolmates who took the longest to persuade to go into the war. Most of them were ready to go, not necessarily because they believed in the cause, but because their parent’s generation believed in the cause and had convinced them that it was the cause to believe in.
The older generation embodied in Bäumer’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, his father, and his father’s friends adhere to a sense of nationalism and duty to Germany. They honestly believe that they understand what war is like by mere observation. Bäumer finds them wrapped up in a pride that he can no longer connect to. “Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but on can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.”[3] One of the most stark examples of this kind of philosopher soldier is an older man Bäumer is talking to on his leave. After being asked what he thinks about the possibility of a break through Bäumer replies that he doesn’t think it is possible. “He dismisses the idea loftily,” Bäumer says, “and informs me that I know nothing about it. ‘The details, yes,’ says he, ‘but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge.’”[4]
This disconnect does not always play out into a type of resentment. These young men seem to merely take it for granted that they know better about the complexities of war than the generation before them. “We were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards…We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”[5] There is a strange sense of tension in the younger generation’s conceptualization of the war. “We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”[6] Bäumer has some serious words against the war and the inhumane aspects of it, “We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill.”[7] Yet at the same time when he comes home on leave, he realizes that he no longer has any place in his home town. His place is with his fellow soldiers. “I bite into my pillow. I grasp the iron rods of my bed with my fists. I ought never to have come here Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless – I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier…I ought never to have come on leave.”[8]
One of the most interesting from the younger generation is the formation of camaraderie within the troops. Instead of what they interpret as the empty rhetoric of the older generation, the younger generation embraces one another for support. The strongest example of this type of camaraderie comes at the end of a very intense battle for Bäumer. He is lying in one of the shell holes trying to motivate himself to rise up and find his fellow soldiers when he hears their voices. “At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices…they are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades. I am no longer…alone in the darkness; - I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”[9]
These two generations see two completely different sides of the war. The older generation sees the need to preserve the pride of Germany at all costs. They see death in the trenches as noble. They believe that they have a wider knowledge of what the war and nationalism was all about. The younger generation also has a deep love for Germany, but they understand what death in the trenches really is like. They know it as a wretched, burning, moaning hell. They know it from their own personal experiences that they do not feel have anything to do with the bigger noble picture that the older men see. At the end of the novel Bäumer sums up the feelings of his generation by saying, “And men will not understand us – for the generation that grew up before us, thought it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; – the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”[10]
[1] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York: Baltimore Books, 1996), pg. 194
[2] Remarque, All Quiet pg. 12
[3] Ibid., 168
[4] Ibid., 167
[5] Remarque All Quiet pg. 13
[6] Ibid., 88
[7] Ibid., 116
[8] Ibid., 185
[9] Remarque All Quiet, pg. 212
[10] Ibid., 294

06 July 2008

Attempting to Live the Examined Life

Welcome to my blog!

I have tried for years to unsucessfully start a blog, and it has worked. Each time it has been unsucessful... :) I have decided; however that it would be best for me to keep to a specific topic or theme. After some amount of thought I have found that to stick with literature or history as my theme would be most fruitful unless there is something really important that I feel needs to be in here. Also, I will have to include some of my poetry.
Unfortunately some of my posts will be a little long so I hope if I have readers they will have the time to read them. Thank you for reading!

~ BerlinPoet

The Importance of Language to a Believer

The importance of language to the believer is overwhelming. First and foremost our medium to God through Christ is by the word both in the scriptures and when the word came down to us in flesh. We were not given the capacity to see God so we must learn to encourage the proper use of language in our society in order to not lose this path of communication to God. Second, language is the key to understanding many of the doctrines we adhere to, such as the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine of sanctification. Third, language is what God has given to us so that we can know who we are. He gave us language as the tool to indentify ourselves.
Martin Luther said over five hundred years ago, “We must learn to see with our ears.” He later refers to God as a deus loquens or a “speaking God.” I understand Luther’s statements to be entreating us to take a break from our image saturated society and concentrate on what we can hear. In this way Luther thinks we can maintain the relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another the way God intended us to. This is an exhortation to Luther’s fellow men to learn to not rely on images to convey truth, but rather to use language in order to convey truth in a dialogical form and to stand behind what we say.
If Luther could see a pulling away from language and reliance on what one can see within the culture he was writing in, then how much more so would he see it now? In our technological age, information and images are crucial. We see images everyday in television, on the internet, on billboards, and in advertisements. Our generation has been born into the world of images and a faith that they hold some truth value. We do have some words around us as well, but they are not for dialogue. They are just noise surrounding us and distracting us from the truth value words have the potential to contain. There are words around us used primarily to school us. These are lists of information that suppress the individual and focus solely on what is deemed important – the information. There are words around us used primarily to get what we want or what someone wants from us. These are words of manipulation that not only deny but reject the individual and only use him or her in order to achieve goals.
But Luther was aware of the importance of language to Christians and to society as a whole. After all, this is the primary source of our communication with God. Luther stressed the importance of what has been identified as dialogue, two way communication in which the personhood of each participant and identity of each participant is recognized and respected. This is the type of communication we have with God, and Luther encourages us to cultivate this type of communication in our society.
The scriptures tell us, “No man has seen God and lived,” (1John 4:12) yet God still communicates with us through his word. Our ability to have communion with God is through His word – the scriptures. The importance of the word is stressed over and over in the Bible from Genesis where the simultaneous doubting of the word of God and the fall are no mere coincidence, to the New Testament and the gospel of John where we are told “the world became flesh and dwelt among us.”
From the beginning the only relationship we have had with God was through dialogue. God spoke the world into being. Whatever is going on now and whatever will happen in the past is not only contingent on what God says to us, but also on how we respond. Over and over again the word of God and our response to it is stressed in the scriptures, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130); “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Duet, 8:3); and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) From these scripture passages we can gather how important listening for and responding to the voice of God is.
It is important to note as well that the first time language began to be doubted was at the time of the fall when Eve questioned what God had told her and the serpent introduced monologue or manipulative speech into the world. This was the first time man actually hid from the voice of God. The first time man disregarded this intimate connection God had established.
God created us as responsive human beings when he spoke us into being. He spoke, and we responded by living. When God sent his son into the world, it is not a mere coincidence that Christ was called, “the word.” Christ was God’s word coming to us in the flesh. And even though Christ was tangible and his followers could see him with their eyes, he still exhorted them not to have faith by merely seeing, “Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20: 29) These words were spoken to Thomas who refused to believe the words of the women who were at the tomb and of the other followers of Christ, but only believed when he himself had seen Jesus’s hands and put his hand in Jesus’s side. This is exactly what Martin Luther is talking about in his statement. It is important that we see with our ears. It is important that we do not rely solely on image, because that is not the way of communication God has established.
Not only is language important for knowing God and walking with him, but it is a key component of the doctrine of creation. It dismisses the concept of primal language that evolved over time. Emile Beneviste’s in his essay Subjectivity in Language states, “We are always inclined to that naïve concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man separated from language and we shall never see him inventing it.”[1] God, in speaking man into life as a responsive human being created someone He would say “I” to and whom He would call, “you.” In order for this dialogue to happen the words “I” and “you” must be involved, and the very concept of “I” is a subjective linguistic concept. It cannot be had without dialogue and it cannot be understood on its own. It can only be understood through dialogue.
Language is also key to understanding the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification. Without the word becoming flesh and dying on the cross for our sins, we would never be justified in the sight of the Lord. Without his intercession through Christ to the Father using words our justification would be impossible. And without language we could no longer speak to God. Our walk with him through words would be hindered and we could never grow as Christians. Our sanctification would not happen. We would not be able to grow in our relationship with God.
Another important aspect of language to a Christian is the fact that we know who we are by speaking to others and to God. Emile Benveniste’s argument can be used to underscore this concept as well. Benveniste believed language is only takes place when person designating him or herself as “I” speaking to another person designated as “you” and becoming “I” when it is his or her time to speak. So when we are speaking to the Lord, we are finding ourselves and recognizing who we are. Language, Benveniste argues, is impossible without dialogue. Dialogue involves the speakers “I” and “you” but it is also important that the personhood of each of the speakers is recognized. Benveniste doesn’t even recognize information listing or the use of speech to manipulate others and get them to do what you want without recognizing their personhood as language. The thrust of Benveniste’s argument is, “Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse….This polarity of persons in is the fundamental condition in language, of which the process of communication, in which we share, is only a mere pragmatic consequence.”[2] In this way God establishes his own identity through the word. He speaks to us and we call ourselves “I” and Him, “you.” We acknowledge his being as separate from ours.
In order to cultivate this seeing with our ears, we must begin with each other. If we lose track of dialogue with one another, we will no longer be able to have dialogue with God. With the breakdown of language today through the relativity of post-modernists like Jacques Derrida and Haydn White who leave us questioning like Eve in the garden, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1), and those like Peter Ramus use the word merely to impart impersonal information, thus stripping the word of any individualism, comes a mistrust of the word as a whole. This unfortunate breakdown of language has not only caused us to distrust the words of others, but it has introduced a distrust of the only medium we have to our Lord and Savior.
Martin Luther’s words spoken so long ago still ring true today. We do need to step back from images and start taking our words and the words of others seriously. We must cultivate dialogue in our relationships with others. When we speak we must speak truth or at least as sincerely as we can, making sure to watch what we say because as Matthew 12:36-37 clearly states, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” This convicting passage is a powerful reminder of the power of our words and the respect necessary for us to have in any interaction with language. We must also work hard not to become cynical about the word. We must continue to sincerely believe in the truth value of dialogue. No matter how many times we are let down by the untruthful words of others we must continue to believe in this powerful medium God has given to us. We must never turn to images as truth containers for as Jacques Ellul so plainly states in his work The Humiliation of the Word “Images never reinforce anything but conformity to the dominant doxa (opinion).”[3] We must speak the truth and stand behind it in order to resurrect a faith in the spoken word. We must not lose touch with this important means of communication nor reject it in favor of images which merely are a representation of reality formed by our words. We must reject the use of words as mere information conveyers and the impersonalization this creates. We must reject the use of words to get what we want or the use of words by others to get from us what they want and the de-personalization that comes with that. We must learn to see with our ears.




[1] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 47
[2] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 48
[3] Jacques Ellul The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1985) pg. 26